With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) preparing the legal framework under which unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) will be regulated in the United States, business interests from all sectors are amassing armies of legal analysts and lobbyists in hopes that their bottom lines are part of the ultimate equation.
As The Hill reports on Wednesday:
At least four K Street firms — including Holland & Knight and McKenna Long & Aldridge — have set up practices dedicated to drones in response to client interest.
“Taking a view of the last several years, the discussion has gone from ‘Should we allow drones’ to ‘How do we integrate drones’ because they’re here,” said David Whitestone, the chair of Holland & Knight’s transportation industry practice and a member of the firm’s drone team.
While Congress has directed the FAA to clear the way for the use of commercial drones by 2015, a federal agency watchdog said the deadline could be difficult to achieve.
Calvin Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, told a House Transportation panel in February that there are “significant technological barriers” that stand in the way of integrating drones into airspace.
However, on Tuesday, the head of the FAA office tasked with integrating the unmanned aircraft said the agency is working with “several industries” to make way for a limited commercial drone fleet before the agency’s overall rules are finalized.
Late last year, the FAA announced that six states had been cleared for early testing for the use of commercial drones in public airspace.
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Since that time, reports The Hill,
about 35 groups, companies and universities or municipalities reported lobbying on “drones” or “unmanned aerial systems,” the preferred term of the industry.
While defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Boeing are the major players in debate, the lobbying push on commercial drones has extended far beyond the defense industry.
Other stakeholders — including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the state of Nevada, the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Airlines for America, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association — have also jumped into the discussion.
Critics of increased domestic use worry that the proliferation of drones will have far-reaching implications for safety, civil liberties, and privacy concerns. A key weapon on U.S.-created battlefields overseas, the worries over bringing such technology home is alarming to those who say that inadequate oversight could lead to serious infractions of personal liberty and privacy as police, border patrol agents, and private industry all clamor for more sophisticated surveillance technologies.
In late 2011, as word spread that the FAA was moving towards the introduction of domestic drones, the ACLU released a report (pdf) warning against the possible abuses of such technology. Among the report's warning, the group asserted:
UAVs are potentially extremely powerful surveillance tools, and that power, like all government power, needs to be subject to checks and balances. Like any tool, UAVs have the potential to be used for good or ill. If we can set some good privacy ground rules, our society can enjoy the benefits of this technology without having to worry about its darker potentials. We impose regulations on what law enforcement can do all the time, for example allowing law enforcement to take a thermal image of someone’s home only when they get a warrant. We need to impose rules, limits and regulations on UAVs as well in order to preserve the privacy Americans have always expected and enjoyed.